Chesapeake Bay Program to Offer Prince William County Students Hands-On Lessons

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Classroom lectures and science textbooks will be pushed aside next year at Prince William County middle schools as educators partner with a local university to provide students with a different kind of learning experience.

Thanks to a $330,000 grant over three years from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Chesapeake Bay B-WET Program and a partnership with George Mason University, Prince William public schools will be able to provide every sixth-grader with field experience in lessons on the Chesapeake Bay and the local watershed.

"Prince William has one of the largest parkland and refuge areas, so getting students to become aware of their surroundings is part of our mission," said Dann Sklarew, who is spearheading the program from George Mason's end. "I hope this program will help them see environmental stewardship as something of value to them."

The goal of the B-WET -- or Bay Watershed Education and Training -- program is to provide every student in the bay region with a "meaningful watershed experience" before they finish school, Sklarew said, noting that George Mason and the county schools are providing an additional $277,000 for the program.

As part of the program, students will get a chance to participate in schoolyard stewardship activities in which they will develop projects such as rain gardens and use maps to track how the water from their building runs into the bay.

At the culmination of the program, students will take a trip to the water, at either Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge or Manassas National Battlefield Park, where wetlands are being restored, said Joy Greene, Prince William County environmental education coordinator. There, they will look at insects and test water quality by using probes to measure temperature and oxygen levels with the help of students from George Mason's Prince William campus.

"Our main focus through this is to connect children from the schoolyard to the bay and have them see that what they do at school will ultimately effect the water quality in the bay," Greene said. "We're really excited about this partnership with Mason and collaborating with them in order to give our students these educational opportunities."

Greene said about 5,400 sixth-graders will participate in the program during the 2009-10 school year. After that, the program will expand to reach some high-schoolers, hopefully touching roughly 18,000 students before the grant expires in three years.

But once it does, Greene and Sklarew said, they want to see the partnership and the program continue. Sklarew said the lesson plans, which are getting finishing touches this summer, will be adopted as part of classroom curriculum and equipment purchased by the grant should outlive the three-year trial program.

The only issue, both said, will be finding funding for the field experiences.

"We are already looking to apply for future grants and ways to support this endeavor in the future," Greene said.

The NOAA's B-WET program began in the Chesapeake Bay area in 2002 and has since spread to places including California, Hawaii, the Gulf of Mexico and New England, B-WET Chesapeake Bay Program Manager Shannon Sprague said.

This year, the NOAA's Chesapeake Bay office had $3.5 million in B-WET funds to distribute to jurisdictions within the bay's watershed, Sprague said. Last year, it awarded 32 grants to schools and other groups in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District.

This year's grant funding is still being allocated, but the grant to George Mason and the Prince William schools ranks as one of the largest in Virginia, Sprague said.

"One of the interesting things is their project covers from the mountains to the estuaries," Sprague said, explaining why her organization decided to fund the program. "Through [their curriculum], they show students that even if they live in the upper reaches of the watershed, they still have an effect on the bay itself. That's a very powerful message."

Local program officials said some people involved in the program are preparing to attend a conference in Maryland at which they will present the curriculum and get feedback from others who run similar programs across the country.

Middle school science teachers will be trained next month so they can work with researchers from George Mason's Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center when school begins.

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